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‘Oh for a peaceful Messiah!’


                                    Kathleen Ferrier : a centenary tribute


The contralto voice barely exists in the music profession. It is unfashionable. Why, in opera, should the soprano always get the tenor? Why are all those virtuosic vocal pyrotechnics reserved for sopranos? Yes there are those who do continue to call themselves contraltos but they are mainly Scandinavian or French, certainly ‘foreign’. You will meet the word in a choral context, with the four sections of a choir still described as sopranos, altos, tenors and basses but who, in opera, wants to be a witch, soothsayer or grandmother? In the singularly British world of Gilbert and Sullivan a contralto still carries her head high when she sings character roles such as Mad Margaret, Katisha or Buttercup. In an agent’s brochure promoting artists you will find that the singers consist of five categories of the male voice (counter-tenor, tenor, baritone, bass-baritone and bass) but only two of the female (soprano and mezzo soprano).  Today it may almost be something to be ashamed of, yet not so long ago lived among us one of the greatest singers of the 20th century who was a contralto and whose name was Kathleen Ferrier. When she joined the agency of Ibbs and Tillett at the end of 1942 there were upwards of sixty voices described as contraltos on its books (though it could be conceded that some of the higher voices among them would be described today as mezzo sopranos). They included (to name but a third of them):


Muriel Brunskill   Margaret Balfour  Astra Desmond   Mary Jarred
Gladys Ripley Edith Coates  Nancy Evans Betty Sagon
Betty Bannerman Flora Nielsen  Janet Howe    Janet Fraser
Constance Shacklock  Anne Wood    Catherine Lawson Esther Salamon
Molly Leaper Freda Townson  Enid Cruickshank  Essie Ackland


Kathleen Ferrier’s life was short at 41 years, her career ridiculously so at a mere ten of them. As if sensing this brevity, the Great Scheme of Life ensured that her climb to the top of her profession was taken at breakneck speed. In her own words she went ‘from Carlisle to Covent Garden within five years. Lucky Kaff!’ Sixty years after her death she remains an iconic figure to a generation of ‘a certain age’ which recalls both its own and its parents’ deeply felt and enduring love of her voice. Kathleen’s life is full of surprises for the researcher, two of them strikingly so. The first is that her career lasted no more than a decade from 1943 until 1953 and the other is that it was as a pianist that she started out in music rather than as a singer. Her life is well documented in a collection of memoirs put together by Neville Cardus (1954), in biographies by her sister Winifred (1955), less accurately by Charles Rigby (1955), in one by Maurice Leonard in 1988, a discography by Paul Campion in 1992 (revised 2005) and by myself as biographer and editor of her Letters and Diaries published in 2003 (the 50th anniversary of her death) and again in late 2011 in a much enlarged (409 letters) and revised paperback marking the centenary of her birth on 22nd April 2012.

Despite leaving school at fourteen, Kathleen Ferrier was highly intelligent. She had charm and charisma, she radiated happiness and enthusiasm and was witty, very funny, clever and spoke or wrote to the point as one would expect of a Lancastrian. She loved Spoonerisms (‘pickled tink’, ‘ruddy blush’, ‘woody blunders’) or music such as ‘On cooking the first hero in spring’ by Delius or ‘Bad Mess’ by Britten, while ‘O rust in the Lard’ and ‘Land of soap and water’ speak for themselves. She had a wicked sense of humour (Britten described her as ‘noble and naughty’):

Here’s to the young girl on the hill. If she won’t, her sister will. Here’s to her sister!

Here’s to love.
Ain’t love grand?
Just got a divorce
From my old man.
Ain’t stopped laughing
Since the judge’s decision
’Cos he’s got the kids
And the kids ain’t his’n!


There was a young lady of Nantes
Très chic, jolie, élégante,
But her hole was so small
She was no good at all
Except for la plume de ma tante!!

Her life was marked out. Had her marriage to Bert Wilson been a success, she would have had her 2.4 children and remained the dutiful wife of her bank manager husband in Cumbria or thereabouts according to the path of his career. Any musical activity would probably have been as a piano teacher, coach and accompanist, perhaps a singer too but probably very localised in the north. Had the Post Office selected her as the voice of the Speaking Clock (TIM) we may have heard those Blackburn tones over and over again, but they didn’t, although they have now made partial amends by issuing a First Class stamp to mark her centenary. Instead success led her at every twist and turn at a rate of knots. She encountered all the good and the great within (and without) the music profession and they all helped progress her career from its initial lowlands to its dizzy heights. It was the briefest of journeys which took her from a thoroughly domesticised life in Silloth (these entries come from 1942) 

Cleaned up for a change. Did piles of shopping and ironed at night. Pipes frozen. Stayed in and knitted. Had a hot pot for lunch. O boy! Knitting bee and dance. Chatter, chatter. Knitted and listened to the Brains Trust. Put a lot of seeds in garden. Had bath and hair wash. Busy day filling plant pots in preparation for tomatoes. Cleaned up, washed and ironed. Practised., darned, mended. Bath and washed hair.

to the professional life which started in London in earnest just one year later. This was her punishing schedule selected from various points during 1943:

Westminster Abbey Messiah 5pm. Isobel Baillie, Peter Pears, William Parsons. All sorts of folk there. Norwich. Leicester. Aberystwyth. Nottingham. Elijah. Tired. Travelled in guard’s van to Newcastle. Broadcast 1.30. Crewe. Frauenliebe und Leben. Southwark Cathedral. Messiah. Huddersfield. Messiah. Dunstable Messiah. Todmorden. Messiah. Bromsgrove. Messiah. Lytham St Annes. Messiah. Runcorn. Messiah. Royal Albert Hall. Messiah.

Such pressure elicited regular cris de coeur to John Tillett after he heard her at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday afternoon 9th July 1942. ‘Attractive, an excellent voice, even throughout, very good head register, warm and vibrant, good diction, extensive compass’, he recorded and put her on the agency’s books. By the end of 1946 she was pleading with him:

I’m sorry but I would rather you kept July free as well as June and August. I think I would rather give Liverpool a rest as I have been so much and have run out of a change of frock (not to mention repertoire)!

I’m very sorry but I shall have to return this contract for Twickenham. I can’t possibly do five recitals running, especially with the Third Programme at the end of the five with eight new songs I haven’t seen yet!

Please, please ask me before booking any more dates. Having just done seven concerts in six days in six different towns, am feeling more than usually weary, not having recovered from travelling from Stoke to Bradford in five different trains, starting at 9.26am, catching all the right connections and arriving late for rehearsal with Dr Sargent and still lunch-less! It isn’t possible to sing well at this rate.

The relentless grind of travelling meant that letters were often addressed from ‘in train’ and invariably included phrases such as ‘this train is leaping about’ (1944), ‘this is a whirling train’ (1944) and ‘this is the joggliest train ever’ (1947). Her CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) tours took her the length and breadth of the country to places large and small, where she was received with respect, admiration and warmth. She never forgot concert organisers, local accompanists (good and bad) or landladies:

30th January 1946

Dear Mrs Leigh

Once more may I say thank you so very much for all your kindness. It was lovely to be with you again and to be so spoiled. I’m only sorry the arrangements were mixed and your dinners rushed as a result. Thank you so very much too for the ½ doz. eggs which arrived home all intact. I was popular!

I had a most peaceful journey to Derby and a lovely concert, and have since been to Liverpool, Morecambe and Glasgow, so I hope you will forgive me for not writing sooner, but I seem to have been either singing, packing or journeying since I left you.

Once again thank you so very much for all your kindness and generosity – I am so very grateful to you and your husband.

With best wishes and my most sincere thanks

Kathleen Ferrier

Liken her life to a chain-link fence and consider each one of its supporting uprights as a musical contact, any of which a young would-be performer today would sell his or her soul for. The first was her piano teacher at Blackburn High School, Frances Walker. Then came Dr John Hutchinson, an adjudicator who became her first singing teacher, followed by Alfred Barker former leader of the Hallé Orchestra (‘This girl has a voice!’). He heard her sing in a Messiah which he led early in 1942 and recommended her to Malcolm Sargent (‘Malcolm Sargent. O boy!’), who in turn sent her to John Tillett in London (‘Audition went off well. Decided to live in London. Phew!’). She then found a London-based singing teacher, the fine British baritone Roy Henderson, who was instructed by Tillett to keep an eye on her and smooth many rough areas of her platform manner. Among her accompanists she favoured Phyllis Spurr and John Newmark but more significantly she impressed and worked often with the greatest of them all, Gerald Moore. The fence continued.

The Messiah, now proving a lucky work for her, at Westminster Abbey yielded both Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (‘Oh boy! did my knees knock!’) and they in turn took her to Glyndebourne for the premiere of Britten’s new chamber opera Rape of Lucretia in 1946 (‘am still enjoying being raped three or four times a week!’). The opera house’s General Manager Rudolph Bing and the wife of its founder, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, then established the Edinburgh Festival, inviting Kathleen to participate (she sang at each of the first six, 1947-1952). From America they brought over Bruno Walter and from Europe came Peter Diamand, who took her to the Holland Festival (Kathleen remains extremely popular in that country). Walter took her to America (she toured there in 1948, 1949 and 1950), having realised (after doubting as much) that in Kathleen he had found his contralto for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde which he wanted to perform and as a result stimulate a Mahler revival in Britain. Like so many conductors (Barbirolli was another), Walter fell in love with her voice and became a close friend as well as mentor. Her instinctive grasp of Mahler’s style at a time when his music was rarely broadcast or performed live is testimony to her musical intelligence, bearing in mind her lack of formal training at a music college. She was effectively five years behind the average age of starting a professional career and it was well nigh impossible to learn either German or Italian during the war years. So when custom reverted to singing Lieder and arias in their original languages, that study became a further addition to the workload of catch-up which so dominated and frustrated her life. Tuition and coaching took time and time, as events would prove, was simply not on her side.

The list of conductors with whom Kathleen worked is impressive: Ernest Ansermet, Sir John Barbirolli, Eduard van Beinum, Sir Adrian Boult, Warwick Braithwaite, Charles Bruck, Fritz Busch, Basil Cameron, Albert Coates, Meredith Davies, Issay Dobrowen, Georges Enesco, Walter Goehr, Reginald Goodall, Charles Groves, Julius Harrison, Reginald Jacques, Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Clemens Krauss, Josef Krips, Rafael Kubelik, Herbert Menges, Maurice Miles, Pierre Monteux, Boyd Neel, Karl Rankl, Clarence Raybould, Fritz Reiner, Stanford Robinson, Hugo Rignold, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Carl Schuricht, Rudolf Schwarz, Fritz Stiedry, Walter Susskind, George Szell, Erik Tuxen and Bruno Walter. Some conductors amongst the uprights in her chain-linked musical life did not materialise. She never sang under Toscanini. Beethoven’s Ninth was scheduled for May 4th and 8th 1951 at London’s new Royal Festival Hall but both of them cancelled and were replaced by Gladys Ripley and Malcolm Sargent respectively. Nor did she sing with Furtwängler. He wanted her for three performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in April 1952 but she was unavailable, while later that year illness forced him to cancel Mahler’s  Kindertotenlieder on 17th November at the Royal Albert Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic, now conducted instead by Clemens Krauss. She had one encounter with Thomas Beecham in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at the Leeds Festival on 3rd October 1950. A nice little anecdote was reported locally. The booked soprano was Gwen Catley, who awoke that morning with a cold. Elsie Suddaby was summoned from London but arrived in Leeds too late for the start of the afternoon rehearsal. Until she did, Kathleen sang both parts!


The early part of the rehearsal was not held up because Miss Kathleen Ferrier, the contralto, sang both the contralto and soprano parts – to the evident amusement of Sir Thomas Beecham.

Some works (excluding songs) she sang only once, among them Beethoven’s ninth symphony (Walter), Bruckner’s Te Deum (Walter), de Falla’s El amor brujo (Sargent), Haydn’s Nelson Mass (Krips but nothing else by Haydn). Surprisingly there was neither Mozart’s Requiem nor his C minor Mass in her repertoire, only the Coronation Mass which was scheduled too late. She sang in the British premiere of Mahler’s third symphony under Boult on 29th November 1947 as part of a Mahler Festival put on by the BBC and three of his five Rückert Lieder under Walter.

Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler is a topic in its own right. The first mention of the composer’s name occurs in her diary for 1 September 1946 and it is simply the title of one of those Rückert songs written in capital letters: ICH BIN DER WELT ABHANDEN GEKOMMEN (‘I am lost to the world’), possibly a reminder to prepare this song for Bruno Walter who she met for the first time two months later on 4 November in a working audition. On 11 September 1947 at the first Edinburgh Festival she sang the first of 30 public performances she would sing of Das Lied von der Erde during the next five years or so (another five had to be cancelled because of her ill-health). Apart from singing it with Walter she also sang it under Willem van Otterloo, Georg Szell, Hugo Rignold, Rudolf Schwarz, Josef Krips, Otto Klemperer, Basil Cameron, John Barbirolli and Eduard van Beinum. The number of performances she gave of Kindertotenlieder is just as impressive, 23 in the same five years with a further three cancelled. The first time she sang it was for the BBC under a staff conductor Mosco Carner on 25th November 1947, then under van Otterloo, Barbirolli, Krips, Walter Susskind, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, van Beinum, Erich Kleiber, Karl Rankl, Adrian Boult, Alexander Krannhals, Antonio Pedrotti, Rignold, Klemperer and Clemens Krauss.

At one point she sang ten performances of Mahler’s major vocal works accompanied by orchestra within a year:

1 October 1949 Kindertotenlieder/Symphony No.2 : RAH with Bruno Walter

6 December 1949 Das Lied von der Erde : Liverpool with Hugo Rignold

23 March 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Chicago with Fritz Reiner

20 April 1950 Das Lied von der Erde : Bournemouth with Rudolf Schwarz

23 April 1950 Das Lied von der Erde : London RAH with Josef Krips

12 May 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Amsterdam with Eduard van Beinum

18 May 1950 Kindertotenlieder : London RAH with Eduard van Beinum

27 June 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Zurich with Erich Kleiber

16 September 1950 Kindertotenlieder : BBC Camden Theatre with Karl Rankl

21 September 1950 Kindertotenlieder : Swansea Festival with Adrian Boult

Two performances of the second (Resurrection) symphony under Barbirolli and Krips had to be cancelled during 1953, but she sang two, the first under Walter at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 October 1949, the other with Klemperer in Amsterdam on 12th July 1951. He was the one conductor she particularly disliked.

I hate to work with Klemperer. I find him gross, bullying, unmoving and conducting insecurely from memory, because - to quote his words - that snot Toscanini does! I find he shouts like a madman - not at me, not bluidy likely - just to try and impress - though why he should think it impresses I can’t think. Perhaps his Mahler comes off sometimes, because he wastes no time nor sentiment - but ohh!!!! whattaman!!

In many ways it was harder for Kathleen to break into the BBC than into the higher echelons of society. Having begun her broadcasting career at the Corporation’s Newcastle studios in the 1930s as a pianist, she found herself pigeon-holed as an accompanist. Although several producers recognised her talent, others who wielded more influence did not. Scouts were sent out to hear her and some took a pretty dim view of her singing, including Lennox Berkeley, though in time he changed his view and even wrote his Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila for her. 

I heard the above at the National Gallery on December 28th. She has a fine and powerful voice of real contralto quality, and seemed to me an accomplished singer. Her intonation was on the whole very accurate and her diction was good. On the other hand I found her rather dull; her tone was monotonous. I cannot imagine that she could ever move one, though there is no doubt about her competence or the good quality of her voice. 

Less than a month later, on 20th January 1943 she auditioned for the BBC Promenade Concerts with Handel’s ‘Where’er you walk’ and the aria ‘Softly awakes my heart’ from Samson and Delilah by Saint Saëns. The report on her was even more qualified, not to say damning, and unsurprisingly she was turned down.

 Rich, clarinet-like quality voice, limited in range and technique at the moment. Good diction. A promising singer, but only suitable at present for small works such as Bach’s songs from Schemelli’s Gesangbuch. Sang the Saint Saëns completely without passion.

 It’s hard to imagine Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘completely without passion’ and it took until 1944 before the Corporation (as a whole and not just certain staff producers) recognised her as a singer when they saw her bandwagon fast disappearing over the horizon and leaving them well behind.  

Is there a method by which, since this artist gets so much booked up, we could reserve her for say three dates per quarter – even twelve months or more in advance?

As in her own day when Kathleen could be heard on the Light Programme, Third Programme or Home Service, we can still do so fairly regularly today on Radios 2, 3 and 4 as well as Classic FM in programmes such as Desert Island Discs, Woman’s Hour and Great Lives. Again it reflects her iconic status in the minds of so many folk and their highly varied musical tastes. A talk or programme without her singing either ‘What is life?’ or ‘Blow the wind southerly’ is unthinkable. Who has heard anyone else either sing or record unaccompanied the latter? This is the one folksong above all the others she sang for which she is renowned. It is first mentioned in her diary on 23rd January 1949 when she sang it in Holland, but it would appear that she sang it in public and on the radio almost a year earlier. On 21st February 1948 Kathleen gave a recital for the Farnham and Bourne Music Club, whose secretary recalled the occasion in the programme marking the club’s Diamond Jubilee in 1983. 

I think the outstanding personality must be Kathleen Ferrier, who came with Phyllis Spurr on a snowy February day in 1948. I asked her if she would give as an encore a folksong which I had heard her sing a few days previously on a radio programme. She replied, ‘I've never sung it in public before luv, but I'll    have a go’. I can still see that lovely presence singing ‘Blow the wind southerly’ and feel proud that we heard the first of what must have been hundreds of subsequent public performances.

 The radio programmes ‘a few days previously’ consisted of a recital of music by Stanford on 16th February and Music in Miniature on 19th February. While the content of the Stanford recital is known, that for Music in Miniature is not listed in the Radio Times (and never was for this regular Interlude or equivalent of television’s potter’s wheel) but this was probably the first occasion when she first sang ‘Blow the wind southerly’. On 10th February 1949 she recorded it for Decca. The rest is history. 

Her first of eight appearances at the Promenade Concerts (1945-1952) was the Last Night in 1945. Although at the time not the sort of festive jamboree with its high jinks which that event has since become (she sang Joan of Arc’s farewell by Tchaikovsky), it meant nevertheless that she had arrived. She gave a talk entitled ‘My first Opera’ on Woman’s Hour on 6th December 1948:

 About the only other time I had been on a stage was at school as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is rather a far cry to the chaste Lucretia.

The dress rehearsal came – and when – struggling to change gowns and shoes in about four minutes, I missed my entry, and when I stabbed myself and fell like a hard-baked dinner roll, I thought it was time I ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’ and did an Ophelia-like exit in the lake with only a belligerent swan for company! What a life! Oh for a peaceful Messiah!

A four-part story of her life had to be abandoned in 1953 as her illness worsened. It was to have consisted of speech, records and specially recorded studio performances. Her recording legacy reflects her performing career fairly comprehensively albeit with some glaring omissions as a result of the BBC’s policy of wiping tapes and reusing them, creating shelf space or losing them due to incompetence. We have no complete Messiah (the BBC could have preserved one, while Decca reneged on its agreement to record it). Britten’s Canticle Abraham and Isaac was written expressly for her and Pears. It was neither preserved nor recorded (again illness intervened when one due to be made in her own bedroom had to be aborted). Probably the worst loss is the absence of any Elgar. We only have a test pressing of Kathleen accompanied at the piano by Gerald Moore of a couple of snippets consisting of the Angel’s Farewell from the Dream of Gerontius. There is also ‘Land of Hope and Glory’). This has survived from the live recording made at the newly reopened Free Trade Hall on Friday afternoon 16th November 1951 in the presence of the Queen (the late Queen Mother) and a packed hall with the Hallé Choir and Orchestra in full cry under Barbirolli. Clearly the choristers and players were inspired by Kathleen’s singing (it was her only contribution to this miscellaneous programme) and upon hearing it one can understand Barbirolli’s relief that wherever the disease ravaged her body (and she had already undergone drastic surgery) the voice remained untouched by its dreadful progress. Listen to her incredibly powerful singing of the concluding phrase ‘Make me mightier yet’. Elgar’s disquiet that this work could be hijacked by jingoism would have been assuaged by Kathleen’s utterly musical interpretation of its beautiful music.

Occasionally some hitherto new recording emerges. It may not be a work absent from the existing list but rather one already on it but made on another occasion, the most glorious example being Das Lied von der Erde taken off-air on her 40th birthday (22nd April 1952) a month before the more famous one made in Vienna with Walter. The earlier one is under Barbirolli and brings home the lunacy of restrictive recording contracts of the day which expressly forbade any collaboration between artists of different recording companies unless permission had been granted, usually after protracted negotiations. Barbirolli recorded for EMI, Kath for Decca. Fortunately one could hear them (and miraculously still can) in this live performance taken from the wireless:

Heavenly birthday party mit cake! Studio broadcast Das Lied. BBC Third. Manchester 7.30 - 8.45. Reh 11am. Milton Hall.

It is a sublime recording and allows us the luxury of juxtaposing two occasions four weeks apart in which Kathleen sang a work she loved with the two most important conductors in her life. It should therefore be everyone’s civic duty to ransack every loft and cellar in the land and listen to every reel-to-reel tape discovered in the hope that we can hear again her singing of the Angel in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, which, according to all who heard it, attest it to be one of her finest roles.

By the end of this centenary year of 2012 I will have spoken over 180 times about Kathleen’s life and voice to all types of groups ranging from recorded music and gramophone societies to U3As, from Women’s Institutes to Festivals, Literary Societies and the English Speaking Union. Invariably I begin by asking for memories from those present who heard her in performance, not on the wireless in ‘Family Favourites’ or ‘Housewives’ Choice’. Usually there are one or two, sometimes more. They may have been at school when Kathleen came to sing, they may have sung in a choir to which she came as a soloist supplied by Ibbs and Tillett, or maybe they were in the audience at a recital or choral concert, or at the opera. One man had a ticket for the third performance of Orpheus at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in February 1953. Unfortunately Kathleen’s last appearance in public had taken place at the second, resulting in the cancellation of the remaining two when a part of her femur gave way. In another two decades one will be hard put to find those who actually heard her in the flesh, while young singers, though they will continue to enter the annual competition named after her, will probably not be aware of the significance of that name, will rarely have heard her voice on recordings and certainly will not know in any detail the significance of her musical life or the path of her career.

That career involved very little opera at a time when music societies and choirs flourished throughout Britain and the distraction of television had not yet taken hold. Nowadays she would have had to do more opera to sustain a career but there would have been more to do such as operas by Handel, Rossini and 17th century composers. Whilst these revivals and explorations which began during the 1950s and 1960s may well have produced more work opportunities (as if she needed them), the question also arises whether the voice was agile enough to cope with the roulades, flourishes and coloratura. It’s hard to tell but probably not. Her voice had too much nobility about it. She would also have had competition from the counter tenor voice emerging at that time. Research in the Ibbs and Tillett archives produced requests for her from New York (Amneris in Aida at the Met), Bayreuth in 1952 (Karajan expressly asked her to sing Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde) and Glyndebourne (Ulrica in Un Ballo in maschera). These roles would have been quite wrong for her, either too high or too dramatic. Her only foray into Wagner might have been as Erda in the Ring which Bayreuth invited her to sing but the offer came too late. The only Wagner she did sing was Mary’s part in the Spinning Chorus in Der fliegende Holländer at Hanley in 1945.

She did sing in some ensembles from operas. There was the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman with Joan Cross or Eva Turner and some by Verdi and Puccini at CEMA Miscellaneous Concerts. There were four occasions when she sang Maddalena in the quartet from Rigoletto (in English ‘Fairest daughter’) at Aberdare, Maesteg, Mountain Ash and Burnley. Similarly there were a few occasions when she sang the duet ‘Home to our mountains’ from Il Trovatore and the Flower duet from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly (again with Eva Turner). All these, however, were accompanied by piano. When it came to offers of doing such operas with orchestra it became a different matter. Glyndebourne’s offer of Ulrica was turned down in a firm but friendly manner.

Thank you very much for asking me to sing Ulrica. I went immediately and borrowed a score and studied it carefully yesterday. I don’t mind appearing as an elderly witch (!) but I feel that the tessitura is high and that I should be inclined to tie myself in knots.

Kathleen Ferrier hated turning down any opportunity to sing Verdi’s Requiem though she tried to make light of it. She knew in her heart of hearts that her teacher Roy Henderson was absolutely right when he told her that it was too high, too heavy and too dramatic:

Roy Henderson won’t let me do the Verdi Requiem. He says there is a lack of heat in the blood for such things!! This I am determined to prove him wrong one day.

I’m sorry about the Verdi Requiem. It breaks mi’ bloomin’ heart but it’s no good, it’s too high.

This restricted repertoire (if only Mozart had written for the contralto) contributed to her semi-exclusion from the world of opera and no doubt provoked such comments as ‘The more I see of opera, the less I want to take part in it’. Having heard Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier on a night off at the 1949 Holland Festival where she was singing Orfeo, she commented:

I suppose Rosenkavalier was good too, but I was hearing it for the first time, and was slightly embarrassed in the first act, it hurt my ears in the 2nd, and I’m afraid I was bored and had corns upon mi sit-upon by the 3rd. (No likey!)  But then I’m no Wagner fan and I suppose it’s the same school.

‘I have been very worried by my automaton-like extremities!’ she wrote regarding her feelings about her own work in opera, though she did exhort John Tillett to ‘come, if only to see me singing my way thro’ Hell fire wiv me ’arp in mi ’and!!’ in Orfeo at Glyndebourne in 1947. The opera stage was not her natural habitat. ‘I’m lousy on the stage. I fall over my own feet and wave my arms like a broken down windmill!’, while she summarised it as ‘a lot of play-acting, whereas I live and love and die in a song’. This was the essence of Kathleen’s stage charisma. She could hold the attention of an audience in a German Lied or an English folksong without the trappings of a stage, lighting, props, scenery, costume, make-up and such paraphernalia. By the time of her death she was much in demand. ‘Turned down Bayreuth, Scala, New York, Stravinsky in Germany – must get my bulbs in!!!!’ and I found requests for her from such diverse countries as Iceland, Egypt and Rhodesia. Her reputation was truly world-wide by the end.

That came after a struggle of two years and eight months since a definitive diagnosis was made in February 1951. During the periods when she was not in hospital she managed to fulfil her engagements with positive fortitude. ‘Bloody backache’ she’d complain. For some time she had complained of arthritic pain in her upper body and of course the word ‘cancer’ was never mentioned. ‘I am still rheumaticky from the neck down – makes me feel my age ducks!!’. The post-mastectomy letters referred to:

A bump on mi busto. I haven’t had a bath for over six weeks! – I don’t arf pong! I’m very lop-sided at the top but am camouflaging with great taste and delicacy!! I hope the audience took my groans for passion!!

She made light of it all but was very concerned that the seriousness of her condition should not be made known. Her 1951-1953 diaries are full of cancellations and, though she welcomed periods of rest, she hated letting people down and missed her audiences and the company of her fellow artists.

I am just beginning to perk up now - I have been having some extra treatment which is rather sick-making and exhausting - but now that is over and just this last week I feel fine. I shall feel even finer when these two concerts are over - they are a great strain - then I’m going to have a good rest from October onwards, and enjoy being at home.

Plans were constantly being made but as time went on it became hard for Emmie Tillett, who took charge of the agency after her husband John’s death in July 1948, to guarantee Kathleen’s presence at a performance:

There is certainly a general demand for Kathleen Ferrier, in fact I don’t know how to cope with it as offers are coming in from all over the world. 

Emmie tried to be the bearer of better news on more than one occasion, especially to Andre Mertens in charge at Columbia Artists Management (‘her doctors are delighted with her progress’) but finally had to cancel all of a projected tour to the States in the latter part of 1951.

It is extremely difficult to know just how to cope with the Kathleen situation and the only thing that will really set people’s minds at rest is for her to sing in public.

It does not seem possible that such a thing could happen to our wonderful Kathleen, does it? She is so courageous about the whole thing and her sense of humour never leaves her for a moment.


Miracles do happen sometimes – one has got to happen now.


Kathleen's diary for July 1942. Note her audition at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 9th for Ibbs and Tillett.

Kathleen's diary for October 1953. She died on the 8th.

Kathleen Ferrier and John Barbirolli at No.2 Frognal Mansions, Hampstead

The view from the same window seat during the big freeze of 1948

Postcard to Emmie Tillett after Das Lied von der Erde under Bruno Walter
Salzburg 22.8.1949
Furtwängler enquiring about my services for 29th Sept for Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody in London. Original date 28th but have told him impossible, but if 29th then should be very happy to do it. So you will know what it’s all about when you hear! Am willing to do Norwegian radio date if possible at all. Have already sent programmes to Mr Gylling. Will send prog for Worcester tomorrow. First perf here just over and a colossal success. Whoopee.



© Dr Christopher Fifield

Editor: Letters and Diaries of Kathleen Ferrier (2003)

(revised and enlarged paperback edition published 2011 by Boydell & Brewer)

Signed copies available from the editor (£18 incl. postage)





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